This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, June 30, 1993

June 30, 1993 - theory of the expanding egg

The more I think about this, the more I have come to believe that people only have one big idea in their whole lives.

Einstein, the very stereotype of genius, only had one -- the Theory of Relativity. Copernicus had the notion that the earth went around the sun. George Seurat came up with the concept of breaking up the world into little dots of color-pointillism. Camus concluded that the world was absurd.

I don't mean to belittle the importance of any of these things. Each of these people went on to further discoveries. But in the main, all of their work issued from a single initial idea, unique to each person. Just one.

My own idea -- and we're definitely not talking The Theory of Relativity here -- came to me when I was 17. I call it, The Theory of The Expanding Egg. This theory has guided my personal life, and now that I think of it, has directed my professional career as well.

In my model the essential nature of the universe is a series of ever-expanding eggs. For instance, at some point, your life is like that of a fully incubated chick. The chick starts chafing against the restrictions of the shell. Finally, it develops the strength and the means -- a beak-to break out of it. If it doesn't break out, it dies.

After it cracks the shell and struggles free, it goes through a predictable range of responses: agoraphobia, confusion, excitement, discovery-and eventually, familiarity.

My big insight is that this stage is nothing more than finding yourself inside another egg. A bigger, or expanded egg.

To continue the analogy: once the chicken gets familiar with the barnyard, maybe at some point he or she gets bored or curious, so flies over the fence and into a larger world. This is just like breaking out of another egg. It seems to me that organizations work pretty much the same way. There's birth, an expansion, the discovery of new limits, a period of organization tending toward stagnation, a new birth.

Almost everyone I know fits precisely into one of these cycles. I see people who are very comfortable in their little eggs and whose entire consciousness is turned inward. I see people who have just broken out of some previous shell, and are still floundering. I see people who are determined to get all this new information organized, regularized, constructed into an identifiable shape. And I see people who are starting to fret about the limits of their lives.

Sometimes, people even have a special bent for one of these stages. Or maybe they just do better when their outer circumstances match their inner condition. Sometimes too, I think that the success of an organization depends on matching the basic orientation of the leader to the current needs of the institution. For instance, some people love adventure, energy, the possibilities of the unknown. This is just the person you need when your organization has just turned a corner into new territory.

There are people who believe everything should be in its place, and they have a real talent for getting things there. This is the kind of leader you want when your organization has finished a significant expansion, but you don't feel that you're getting the maximum benefit out of your resources. Then there's the kind of person who can't stand stagnation, who rebels against the old ways, who is restless for ... something completely different. You can't find a better boss when your organization is trapped, when it seems like it must change, or die.

The truth is, of course, that leaders aren't enough. Organizations need all kinds of people, wherever they happen to be in relation to the size of their "egg." Take libraries.

A library building is itself a kind of an egg, with distinct limits. But inside the library, some of us (the people who buy our books) are out scouting the great expanses for new materials, new subjects, or new formats. Some of us (our catalogers and shelvers) are running around making sure these items are described well enough to be useful, and that we've put all this stuff where people can find it. And a good many folks elsewhere in the library (the rest of our staff and our patrons) are still exploring the current setup, or starting to rub up against its limits.

So okay, the expanding egg is a good idea. It explains a lot. It even helps predict things.

Somehow, though, it bothers me. It's been a long time since I was 17. Couldn't I have two good ideas?

Wednesday, June 23, 1993

June 23, 1993 - decline of manners

You are downtown and there is a gentleman giving baby elephants to people. You want to take one home because you have always wanted a baby elephant, but first the gentleman introduces you to each other.

What do you say, dear?

It's perhaps the best beginning of any book in history. So you flip the page, and you get the answer, charmingly illustrated by Maurice Sendak.

You say, "How do you do?"

What Do You Say, Dear? (subtitled, "A Book of Manners for All Occasions,� and written by Sesyle Joslin) was originally published in 1958. It happens that my wife has a copy of the first paperback version, printed in 1964. It sold for 35".

These days, it's hard to find that much good advice (or anything else) for just thirty-five cents.

Here's another situation that could happen to anybody. "You are flying around in your airplane and you remember that the Duchess said, "Do drop in for tea some time."

"So you do, only it makes a rather large hole in her roof.

"What do you say, dear?

Well, there's only one thing to say, and here's a book that cuts to the chase. You say, "I'm sorry."

The bad news is that What Do You Say, Dear? is out of print. You can't buy it at any price.

What's so bad about that? Well, for one thing, the book is a delight. Many of the situations it poses are preposterous. Children enjoy hearing them. (And make no mistake, this is a book meant to be read to children.)

On the one hand, the apparently banal or understated response of "good manners" is a sort of anti-climax - a joke.

On the other hand, an important lesson of this book is that it is precisely when life is at its most preposterous, most stressful, even its most dangerous, that good manners are most useful. They might even be necessary.

Another reason it's a shame you can't buy this book anymore is that good manners, in modern American society, are in serious decline. We need this book. We live in a time when we all insist on our rights, but few of us are willing to show simple human courtesy. We are quick to take offense - but equally quick to give it.

The purpose of good manners, or "etiquette," is to reduce social friction by defining some mostly commonsensical standards of conduct. The message of What Do You Say, Dear? is that people have an obligation to be polite, and that good manners are not some old lavender-and-lace affectation, but a simple and elegant response to the unexpected difficulties of life.

I wish I could say that a torrent of books have rushed in to fill the vacuum left by the demise of Joslin's classic. I know of a couple.

Do I Have to Say Hello?, by Delia Ephron (subtitled, "Aunt Delia's Manners Quiz for Kids and their Grownups") is available from the library.

Another is No Bad Bears: Ophelia's Book of Manners by Michele Durkson Clise.

In fact, if you do a subject search on "manners" at one of our computer terminals, you'll find 33 titles on the subject, with a good mix of children�s books.

That's encouraging. But if you're as worried as I am about the creeping rudeness of American culture, you might want to take a closer look at some of these modern day guides to civilized behavior. Who knows? One of them might inspire you to brush up on your manners at home, in your neighborhood, at your local library - and why not? - in all your business and political doings.

What do you say?

Wednesday, June 9, 1993

June 9, 1993 - summer reading program

The first time I read a haiku, I was hooked.

For those of you not up on your Japanese poetry, a haiku is a deceptively simple, three line, seventeen syllable poem. Kids like writing them because they're short. I liked them, especially at first, because they were like working puzzles.

I still have this vague memory of being surrounded by kids thumping their fingers on their desktops to count out the right number of syllables per line. (12345, 1234 -- long pause -- 567, 12345!)

But in old Japan, the writing of haiku was seen as anything but child's play. Oh certainly, some haiku can be very playful. One of my personal favorites is by Issa, the most whimsical of the haiku masters. It goes like this: "If you are tender / to them the little sparrows / will poop on you." (For you table thumpers: it lost a final syllable in translation.)

But in Japan, it was fully expected that if you wanted to get really good at haiku, it might take 80 years or so of persistent effort. The more years you devoted to writing haiku, the more you realized how surprisingly rich and subtle they could be.

Take what has come to be seen as the definitive haiku, by the great master Basho: "old pond / a frog jumps in / water sound." There's a deep structure to the best haiku: three sharp, distinct images that perfectly evoke not only a moment, but a precise season, and the unique voice of the author.

Which leads me to our Summer Reading Program. The kick-off will be held on June 13, at the Ponderosa High School auditorium, at 1 p.m. This will mark the first opportunity for children to sign up. (If you miss the event, you can sign up at any DPLD branch afterward.)

At the Ponderosa event, children (and their parents, and even people who don't happen to fit in either of those categories) will have the pleasure of watching the performance of the Moyo Nguvu Cultural Arts Center, an African percussion dance, poetry, and martial arts troupe. The event is free of charge, and all are welcome.

Throughout the rest of the summer, the children will be treated to a number of additional virtuoso performances. The first show will be by Brad Bowles, who tells both traditional and his own original folk and fairy tales, as well as a mix of tall tales, and even some scary stories.

Other performers include Michael Stanwood, an internationally known multi-cultural musician; Judie Pankratz, who will provide a marionette variety show; and Bonnie Phipps, a nationally recognized musician and storyteller. Consult your local library for the local schedule.

The kick-off will also give us an opportunity to publicly acknowledge the generous contributions of the Mission Viejo Company and TCI. Each company donated $2,000 for the summer reading program, a sincerely appreciated token of their committment to children and reading.

From June 13 on, children will be encouraged to jump into the vast pond of literature. If they manage to read 24 books by the end of August, they will receive a prize ribbon (suitable for hanging) and their choice of a discount ticket to a Rockies game, OR a discount coupon to Southshore Water Park, OR a discount coupon to Elitch's.

Naturally, library staff will also try to liven things up. We'll be holding weekly drawings for Reader of the Week, and Participant of the Week. Readers of the Week Winners will get a "Mickey buck," (as in Mickey Mouse), and I wouldn't mind one myself. Participants of the Week will get Rockies baseball cards.

But all that stuff is just for play. It is our hope that the real result of this year's summer reading program will be that participating children -- like the haiku masters of old Japan -- will find through all the seasons of tomorrow, an enduring love for the power and beauty of the written word.

Wednesday, June 2, 1993

June 2, 1993 - finding fiction

Not to disparage the importance of careful planning, but I'm of the opinion that almost every wonderful thing that has ever happened to me was sheer luck.

Take the sixth grade teacher who kindled my abiding interest in Japanese poetry. Take the purely pixilated day I met my wife. Come to think of it, a lot of the people I've met and liked, I met through wildly unlikely circumstances, and I'm thinking here of my cat, who was born under my Airstream trailer in Arizona, 15 years ago, at about 2 in the morning.

Of course, many people will tell you how important it is to have a system to your life. They'll tell you that if you want to meet a certain kind of person, then you should hang out in a certain kind of place. While this approach doesn't guarantee that you'll find precisely what or whom you're looking for, you've at least maximized the odds.

These two perspectives pretty well reflect the two basic orientations of librarianship.

What they stressed to us in library school was the importance of organization. The two main organizational structures imposed on library collections are the Dewey Decimal System (or DDC), and the Library of Congress system (LC). Dewey divided the world into 10 big categories (100s, 200s, 300s, up to 900s), then shoehorned everything into them, with occasionally comical results (18 numbers to the right of the decimal point). Most public libraries use DDC.

The LC system is a lot broader. It uses combinations of letters (AB, PZ, etc.), which provides far more latitude in differentiation of subjects. It also results in shorter call numbers. Most university libraries -- and some large public libraries -- use LC.

But those aren't the two librarian perspectives I'm tracking. While DDC and LC differ about final techniques, they are in perfect agreement about approach: slap a number on it, put it with other books on the same or similar subjects, and keep it all tidy. It's organized. The idea here is that tidy shelves make it easier to find things.

But some studies have shown that as many as 90% of the books people find in libraries they stumbled across ... by accident. Or as we say in the profession, they were "browsing."

So the second approach to library organization, and the second perspective of librarianship, is a belief in serendipity, or what some have called, "digging for worms and finding gold."

This isn't to suggest that people who browse are staggering blindly through the stacks. Usually they browse the newer books, which in most of our libraries are conspicuously displayed somewhere near the front door. And generally speaking, we do try to keep the books in some kind of order -- either by DDC or alphabetically by the author's last name.

So based on the principle -- to which I have dedicated my life -- that if you only have two choices, invent another one, I submit that the real business of librarianship is the Science of Serendipity. Or as another library theorist put it: "For every book, its reader. For every reader, a book."

If you're interested in further probing this exciting frontier of practical philosophy, I invite you to attend a workshop by Reference Librarian Jeff Long, entitled, "Finding Your Favorite Fiction." Jeff will talk about some techniques that will greatly increase the probability of finding something you'll love.

The workshop will be held on June 15, a Tuesday, from 7-8 p.m. at the Philip S. Miller Library. If you're the sort of person who reviles the random, who cannot abide the chaos of chance, or even if you're a risk taker seeking to beat the system, you might want to come down and listen to one of our library pros give you the inside story.